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Finley entertained and enraged
By Nick Acocella
Special to ESPN.com
"His middle name was Oscar, but he said it's Charles O., for owner, Finley," says Dick Williams, manager of the World Champion Oakland A's of 1972 and 1973, on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Charley Finley was a loud-mouth, a tyrant and a miser. He also was a master showman and an innovator.
His two-decade tenure as owner of the Kansas City and Oakland Athletics was one of the most erratic administrations in baseball history. By the time he stepped aside, it was difficult to say whether he was disliked more by his players, other owners, the baseball commissioner, the fans of two cities or U.S. Congressmen.
But for all that, Finley's A's won five straight division titles (1971-75) and three consecutive World Series (1972-74). Also part of his legacy are Charley O the mule, orange baseballs, mustachioed players, the designated hitter and designated runners.
Finley was about the only baseball person other than Marvin Miller who realized that the advent of free agency could work to the owners' advantage if they allowed all players to become free agents every year, thus matching supply with demand.
What was beyond doubt was that the insurance executive had filled his own pockets, while his enemies lined up to get him. He was described by a Los Angeles Times columnist as "a self-made man who worshiped his creator."
Finley was born on Feb. 22, 1918 in Ensley, Ala., outside Birmingham. When Charley was 15, the poverty-ridden family moved to Gary, Ind., where he was active in sports. After graduating high school, Finley worked in Gary's steel mills for six years.
Then he became a life insurance salesman in 1942. In his spare time, he was a first baseman-manager for a semipro team. But his playing days ended after a severe bout with tuberculosis. While hospitalized with the disease for 2½ years in the late 1940s, he hatched a plan to sell disability insurance to doctors, an idea that made him a millionaire before he was 40.
With his newly earned wealth, Finley bid on several franchises in the 1950s. But it wasn't until December 1960 that he finally realized his ambition when he paid $1.975 million to the widow of Arnold Johnson for 52 percent of the Kansas City Athletics. Besides being the principal owner, Finley also became the team's chairman of the board.
To keep fans interested in an awful team, Finley dressed his players in flamboyant green-and-gold uniforms with white shoes, introduced Charley O the mule, let a herd of sheep graze beyond the outfield fences and installed a mechanical rabbit that popped up from the ground to give balls to the home-plate umpire.
But when Finley wasn't making Kansas City laugh, he was making it cringe. Soon after extracting a more favorable lease on Municipal Stadium, he began making suggestions that the franchise needed a larger market than Kansas City to survive. Throughout the 1960s, rumors swirled about the club moving to Dallas, Atlanta or Oakland. In 1964, he signed a two-year lease on a Louisville stadium, but the American League refused his request to relocate by a vote of 9-1.
Finley reacted by signing a new four-year lease on Municipal Stadium, then suing to reclaim rights to the earlier pact, which contained a favorable escape clause. With the waters muddied, he announced that the franchise was for sale and drew offers from Denver and San Diego.
The issue was settled when American League President Joe Cronin promised Finley he could move within three years. Finley's last years in Kansas City were marked by a player revolt over what was seen as a gratuitous fine against pitcher Lew Krausse. Slugger Ken Harrelson called Finley "a menace to baseball" and was released as one of the rebellion's ringleaders. Manager Al Dark was fired for not disassociating himself from the players' uprising. For his actions, Finley was dragged before the National Labor Relations Board to answer charges of harassment.
When major league owners approved Finley's request to move his club to Oakland for the 1968 season, even an 11th-hour negotiation to provide Kansas City with an expansion team in 1969 didn't prevent a firestorm of criticism by Missouri politicians. Sen. Stuart Symington called Finley "one of the most disreputable characters ever to enter the American sports scene."
The big difference between Finley in Kansas City and Finley in Oakland was that he had good teams in California. Under him, the A's signed Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Vida Blue and Bert Campaneris and they became baseball's dominant team.
It also was the same familiar round of pregame promotions, tensions with star players, and complaints about how the franchise couldn't survive where it was located.
His major contribution during this period was sponsoring the designated hitter, an innovation the American League adopted in 1973.
Finley professed indifference to the often savage bickering among his players and to their contempt for him, pointing to three straight world championships as an acceptable trade-off. On the other hand, he wasn't so indifferent to what he viewed as modest attendance figures for the best American League team of its time.
After initial hints that he was considering moving again, to either Toronto or Seattle, he let his trial balloon deflate for a few years. But then in 1974, with his popularity continuing to drop despite the A's success on the field, Finley began a series of on-again, off-again romances with potential buyers from Toronto and Denver.
At the same time, he returned to his old tactics of slashing costs, firing employees and cutting back on ticket plans and promotions to help make his case to the league that he needed a bailout. When those tactics failed, he went on national television during the 1974 World Series to complain that Oakland couldn't support a major league team.
And it got worse. After the season, Catfish Hunter was declared a free agent because Finley had neglected to fulfill a contract stipulation to put aside part of the pitching ace's salary in an annuity. Hunter signed a lucrative contract with the Yankees.
In 1975, Finley failed in a headlined attempt to get rid of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. The next year, in the wake of the Messersmith-McNally decision which paved the way for free agency, he began gutting his championship team before his stars made good on threats to walk away.
Finley tried to sell Blue to the Yankees and Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Red Sox for a combined $3.5 million, claiming he needed the money to sign free agents and rebuild. Kuhn disagreed, voiding the sales by saying they weren't "in the best interests of baseball."
A furious Finley branded Kuhn "the village idiot" and sued to have the deals go through. Finley lost this battle.
By 1977 some A's players were calling for the league to take over the franchise. Attendance dipped below the half-million mark, leading locals to refer to the Oakland Coliseum as the mausoleum.
Finley, however, kept making money, mostly by selling players, although the best of his talent - Rudi, Campaneris, Bando, Fingers, Don Baylor and Gene Tenace - escaped via free agency. If this embarrassed Kuhn and other owners, there was little they could do about it.
Meanwhile, Oakland authorities wouldn't let the club out of its commitment to the stadium so it could take advantage of what appeared to be done deals with Denver and then New Orleans. At one point, even San Francisco Giants owner Bob Lurie agreed to contribute cash and some home games in the Coliseum if it meant getting rid of the A's.
Finally, on Aug. 23, 1980, in ill health and unable to continue battling on so many fronts, Finley sold the franchise for $12.7 million to the Haas family, owners of Levi-Strauss.
In his post-baseball years, Finley suffered several business setbacks and lost much of his fortune. He died on Feb. 19, 1996, three days before his 78th birthday, of heart and vascular disease.
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